A Year On the Farm

It nearly killed me.

The human mind at thirteen years is uniquely impressionable. I proved it while working on a dairy farm for one year in northern Vermont. Getting kicked, bulled over, swished in the face with nasty brown tails, and sandwiched between heavy cow bodies became normal. Milking another species’ mammary glands went from weird to conventional. Throwing hay bale after hay bale turned so routine I didn’t need gloves to cover my calloused hands.

DairyCowThe unfathomable idea that I could learn a hundred cows’ names, that I could distinguish in a herd between the short and tall, broad and skinny, all those black and white flanks, became fathomable. Their physical markings took shape, and so did their personalities.

There was Claire, a proud registered Holstein from Canada who never kicked. There was Bertha, a bulldozing behemoth respected by the herd (and the farmers) for her penchant for careening through bodies and buildings in a dash to feed. There was Babe, sweetest cow in the barn who always turned in the stanchion to lick at your shoulder and ask for a head scratch.

Only when I look back do I recognize how different this life was, how I became accustomed to a mode of existence worlds apart from where my path would lead. A thirsty teen mind had me following the farmers around pastures and through barns as if they would eventually reveal the big secret and guide me to Shangri-La.

Barn

The farm where I nearly passed out from exhaustion stacking hay in the 105-degree loft. Also, a fence line the farmer’s son hit at full speed when his brakeless bike didn’t make the corner off the hill. Strung up in the barbed wire and electric fence, that boy got a hefty taste of farm suffering.

Now, I did learn some handy things. How to drive a tractor. How to mend a fence. The signs of an infected udder. How to pump a zerk full of grease. Painting. Animal husbandry. Foretelling rain. Investing: I bought a pretty little golden Jersey cow and a piglet to be sold off later at a profit.

They taught me a lot, those tough hick farmers of the northcountry. Dillon, the foreman, showed me how to bob a cow’s tail using a strong rubber ring, and he warned me with a grin to behave myself with his daughter, my girlfriend at the time, or I’d find myself getting the rubber band squeeze. He said it with a smile, but it was only half jest.

Yikes.

Meanwhile, as we milked the cows, Dillon’s eighteen-year-old son regaled me with tales of adventure in the nightclubs of Quebec, where he would pick fights and head-butt people. He proudly instructed me how to grab a man by the lapels and use the peak of one’s forehead, hardest part of the skull, to crack him right in the face, to break open his nose. Even at thirteen, I wasn’t comfortable subscribing to a head-butting lifestyle. But I nodded along and took it as fair warning like his father’s.

Double yikes.

OSullivan-Cows_7567Patrick, gentle vegetarian owner of the farm, taught me death was part of farming. When calves would perish inexplicably or were stillborn into the gutter as sometimes happened, he told me to drag their lifeless little bodies to the woods where hungry coyotes waited on margins of human society. While walking the fence lines far out in the summer pasture one afternoon, we found a dead heifer. How had she died? Patrick didn’t know, but he said it was statistically normal.

I also learned how dangerous a farm can be.

I plummeted through a trapdoor while running through the loft. A pipe clamp in the milk room went through my palm. An electric fence powerful enough to cover forty miles of wire dropped me to my knees.

Other dangers were easy to avoid. Every farmer can tell stories of a tractor’s PTO (power-takeoff, a spinning drive shaft used to charge mowers and balers) tearing off limbs and scalps, killing people. It was one of those obvious hazards like the cancer hidden inside the cigarettes Dillon smoked, easily avoided.

One thing, however, I discovered alone. Thankfully I managed to do it without dying: one of the most dangerous things in the world is a human being.

BRAZIL500Dillon and I had gone out to collect the herd from pasture for dawn milking. The cool fields were heavy with dew not yet burned off by the rising sun. “I’ll go around back and push them,” Dillon said. He set off across the neighboring paddock. As always, I slipped through the gap and shooed the herd, asked them for a bit of room to unlatch the wooden gate.

Then it happened. A sound like a gunshot rang out from behind the herd. As a joke, Dillon had thrown a long-lost piece of cordwood high overhead onto the steel roof of the lumber shack. The sound broke through still morning air. Bang!

The herd moved as one. They surged away from the sound and directly at me. Suddenly I was pinned against a gate that bent under their collective weight. My feet off the ground, my breath gone, I tried to beat them back. All that kept me from being trampled to death under four hundred hooves was a brittle old piece of  chain looped around a fencepost.

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And over their heads I saw Dillon. His smile disappeared and his hands went to rest on top of his hat as if he were witness to calamity. Then he took off running, trying to get around to help, to push them back.

By the time Dillon reached me, the cows’ panic had eased. I had squeezed out the gap and stood on wobbly legs, gasping for breath. Dillon grabbed me by the shoulders. “Are you alright?” he asked.

“I– I think so.”

“It was an accident,” he said. “I didn’t mean to hit the roof. Damn it, I’m sorry.”

I knew he was lying. He’d intended to spook them, maybe not quite so bad. But I hadn’t died. “It’s alright,” I said.

Today I remember my time on the farm – hundreds of days of shoveling crap and stacking hay and milking cows and feeding pigs – as an ad hoc study of the breadth of human experience. That year was the first to truly grab me and thrust me into a new world. Since then, I’ve won my fair share of weird and wonderful adventures thanks to one peculiar piece of luck. I carry it with me everywhere, in my heart. It’s a lovely length of rusted chain that saved me from becoming a statistical casualty in a life as unpredictable as yours.

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A Life of Failure

Failure is underrated.

IMG_4042_2I have abundant experience in this arena. I poured weeks of work into two 100-page federal grant applications that earned polite rejection letters. Tied to the end of a rope, I’ve plummeted off rock climbs again and again, most recently only a foot from the top of the cliff – literally, twelve inches from grabbing the last hold.

With trepidation, I joined Moab Toastmasters, a public speaking club where I stumble over my words and struggle to express myself clearly, or sometimes – gulp – at all. I’ve said things in meetings and in the halls at work and in emails that later made me blush.

One time I admonished a student in the wrong way for distracting his classmates at exactly the wrong moment, and embarrassed him. I’ve earnestly written passages for a novel that turned out so ridiculous my wife and I later laughed until we cried while remembering a teen practicing kung-fu forms in the haunted forest under the secret gaze of a mooning love interest.

Old_Running_ShoesOne of my most spectacular fails: I trained for months to run a 100-mile trail race only to drop out six miles from the finish line.

This is just the beginning of my catalogs of missteps. Sometimes I take aim at too lofty a goal, but most often, I just screw up. I make mistakes.

As the years roll past and the errors mount, I’ve come to see failure as one of the most powerful things about being human. I’m not talking about failures that cost someone their life or injure people. I’m talking about those moments when we mess up in a way that teaches something about the limits of social decorum, the law of reduced flexibility with age, the constraints of physics, which dance move is no longer hip, about how the world works.

Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

I totally understand nobody wants to fail. We aim at perfection – in our duties on the job, as a spouse, in raising a child. However, no matter how careful we are, someday something will go wrong. Just check out a blooper reel from the latest romantic comedy. Even the world’s best actors aren’t perfect, and honestly, their mistakes sometimes entertain more than the film itself.

So here’s where the magic happens: in light of the fact that failure is inevitable, despite best laid plans and any devotion to excellence, I have two options. I can take the normal route of denial and cling to the voice of the ego who avoids risks and refuses to admit defeat. Or I can acknowledge my fallibility and embrace these blunders as opportunities. I can take those grant proposals and turn them into successful applications to other organizations. I can use those climbing moves on a new route. That’s the magic of humanity – the ability to remember and improve upon the past, to turn failure into flourishing.

Baby

According to studies, one of the reasons children learn things so fast, like new words and novel motor skills, is their willingness to make mistakes. Children haven’t yet adopted our aversion to failure; in trying, failing, and trying again, they grow.

The other boon of failure is this: it means we’ve striven for something. Even though I didn’t finish that 100-mile race, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Those months of training weren’t wasted. Rather, I saw many beautiful miles of trails, shared smiles with fellow runners, tasted rain on my lips, discovered the limits of my endurance.

So I hereby make a resolution. I resolve to take myself less seriously. I’m only human. Maybe I’ll try that new dance move after all. Perhaps I’ll write another (somewhat less absurd) novel. I’ll attempt the difficult rock climb that looms beautiful and intimidating over the crag. I will do these things because failure isn’t embarrassing. Faux pas isn’t fatal. And there’s no shame in trying, only possibility.

403187I take inspiration from Michael Jordan who said, “I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” From Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I have discovered 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And from my father, a successful city manager who has told me more than once, “If I do something well, it’s only because I’ve made a mistake before.”

By embracing the risk involved in being human, perhaps I can find a little more inspiration and success, even in failure.

(Original published in the Moab Sun News, 1/8/14)

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The Dominican Republic: Where Tarzan Is Real

7A while back my friend Simon organized a spring break trip to do community service at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, a country on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. He planned it for months. Ten people signed up. They were trained at orientation meetings, bought airline tickets, contacted an agency to run logistics with the orphanage. All was set.

Until one of their participants fell seriously ill the week before.

With a vacancy and short notice, Simon asked, “Do you want to go?”

I shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

I soon learned we were going to teach English, math, and reading. We would tutor children because the orphanage didn’t have enough funding for teachers.

I spoke very little Spanish. I hadn’t been to their meetings. Yet suddenly I was in a van with a bunch of college students I didn’t know on our way to New York City to catch a plane.

When we arrived on the island, Orphanage Outreach bussed us an hour outside Santo Domingo. We unpacked our sleeping bags and got a tour of the compound. Curious little faces peeped around the bushes. They followed us to the door of the cafeteria, not saying anything but watching closely.

That first night our conversation began not with words or gestures, not with books or lessons. It began with baseball.

39530_lgWe gathered in the sandlot before dark and split into teams, Dominican children showing us the batting order, pointing us to our positions, clapping when we hit the ball, grinning when we cheered them on. Everybody exchanged tattered baseball gloves between innings. When somebody hit a home run, a little boy scampered over the wall to fetch their baseball from a neighbor’s field.

We became a part of their tradition for the week. Baseball after lunch. Baseball after dinner. They love it. From a tiny nation of 10.2 million, this year they sent 137 people to the major leagues – more than Japan, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama, and Nicaragua combined!

I didn’t play well compared to the Domincan teens. They hit and pitched and ran like champions, many hopeful that someday they’d be discovered, they’d be snatched up by a team and make it to the big time.

They had dreams.

IMG_0004-1I tutored two kids: Jesus and Oscar – eleven year olds. They were gentle, kind, sweet kids, thirsty for attention and unmotivated by our lessons. Still, they would try. And they would laugh when I tried to speak Spanish. More affectionate than I had expected, they put arms around my neck, asked for piggyback rides, stood close by to remind me they were my students for the week.

After baseball Wednesday night, all the kids were agitated and giddy and running to get chairs. As darkness fell, one of the orphanage staff people rolled a rickety television stand into the courtyard. Children clambered to get good spots sitting cross-legged, staring up at the blank screen with limitless patience as the tape was found, rewound, queued up.

“What movie is it?” I asked the orphanage director.

“It’s Tarzan night,” he said. “Every Wednesday night is Tarzan night.”

Tarzan_2004_cover

I watched Disney animation tell the story of a family shipwrecked near a jungle. A little boy’s parents are killed. He’s left alone, but a gorilla saves him, raises him as part of the troop. After he’s matured into a man, English explorers arrive. Tarzan falls in love with Jane. Following much danger and drama, Jane and her father choose to stay with Tarzan in the jungle as his new family.

I stood there at the back of the courtyard, reading the English subtitles, looking over a sea of children bathed in that bluish light of movie fairy dust. I looked over a yard full of Tarzans, each one of them dreaming of a family that would love him and want to be with him forever.

Tarzan 2It was one of the most powerful moments of my life. I saw dozens of children wanting what I had so blithely taken for granted. I got an inkling how lucky I was to have a family. I saw every one of those kids inserting himself into the film, into the life of a boy finally found. My heart broke open with hope for them too, the sad kind of hope that knows the odds.

Ten years later, I wonder: where are these children?

I don’t know. But I like to believe that they’ve found someone to whom they can belong, forever.

Reaching to the Other Side

I remember.

Hospital BedWhen I was eighteen years old, a car hit me as I biked across the island of Martha’s Vineyard. My skull shattered the Pathfinder’s windshield. After a fight with the paramedics, while being medivacked to Boston, I slipped into a coma. For days my family fretted while doctors warned them: “Beware when he wakes. If he wakes. This kind of brain trauma can change someone. Often the person will become more temperamental and cruel.”

Duly warned, my friends and family waited.

Many head injury victims experience memory problems, ranging from brief stints of blackout to long-term amnesia. I fell somewhere in between. My high school years had been largely erased, my working memory cut down to less than thirty seconds. Once I’d regained consciousness, I asked repeatedly, like a broken record, day after day: “Why am I in a hospital? Why am I in a hospital? Why am I in a hospital?”

Only after months of physical, occupational, and speech therapy was I able to return to a shadowy facsimile of my former existence.

But what’s the first thing I remember? What cut through the haze of my befuddled mind as I lay on a hospital bed? What reached me even in the darkness behind closed eyelids?

A hand in mine.

Hand in HandI remember that human contact as if it were the first experience of my life. Somebody was holding my hand, and I gave three squeezes, a coded message of words I cannot forget.

I. Love. You.

When the other stuff had been stripped away – memories and intellect, dreams and expectations – all that remained was a desire to connect with another human being. More visceral than my identity, more important than confusion, the need to offer love grounded my first experience as a human crawling onto the shores of his new life.

I offer this singular memory because it has helped me contextualize some of the stuff going on today.

I recently watched an interview with a social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, who tried to explain why the political climate of our age is so contentious. One of the main reasons he gave for the toxic status quo is our tribal tendency to demonize the other side. “Once you think [the other side] is evil, the ends justify the means… You can do anything because it’s in the service of fighting evil.”

Bill Moyers talked with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt at http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture/

Bill Moyers’ interview with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt: http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture/

Regardless of whether we’re Democrat or Republican, according to Haidt, this tribal bent pushes us to ignore or even hate the other side. It shuts down our ability to see any kind of positive motive behind the other’s actions. If he isn’t part of our group, he must be crazy or deluded. Haidt says, “When it gets to the mental state in which I am fighting for good and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise. Compromise becomes a dirty word.”

The crux of this age, then, might be withdrawing these severe judgments that ipso facto accompany our viewpoints.

In my small town, we’re lucky to enjoy an intimate setting that puts individuals of differing views in close proximity to one other – at our schools, in the supermarkets, on Main Street, and in the pages of our newspapers. It’s natural to appreciate diverse ideas from people we respect and meet on a daily basis, whereas on the Internet or in cities, it’s all too easy to seal ourselves in bubbles demonizing anybody from the opposite side.

Found here.

A good example of the irrational tribal mind. Found here.

I saw this interview with Mr. Haidt, and I had to take a step back from my own assumptions and prejudices. I began to notice all the user comments about “evil” following articles online. I started to rethink my own dismissal of the other side.

So now I try to remember a hand in mine when I was coming back to the world and what it told me. It said before judgments or requests, before politics and policy, we can offer generosity (and love) to the person at hand. They deserve it, and it’s the most important gesture I know.

As it happens, of course, nobody’s really trying to do the wrong thing or make poor decisions. The only way we’re going to win as a people, is if we agree to debate the public good without attributing nefarious intentions to honest, caring citizens. As we come out of this fog of outraged partisanship, here’s to three words on which I’ll hang my hat:

I. Love. You.

I love you America. I love you fellow American.

Never STOP Loving

(Original published in the Moab Sun News, 10/23/13)

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I live to see new places. Usually that means rock climbing, swimming, or hiking into the wild. But sometimes it means coiling up, pressing hard, and leaving our planet. About seven years ago my wife and I found a fun … Continue reading

Guest Blog: YOLO, by Megan

Today was my first day back to work after ten weeks of vacation; a summer spent traveling around the West in search of beauty and adventure. IMG_3382Climbing road trips are my definition of heaven, a time when my mind and body feel the most carefree and inspired. Meaning lies everywhere on the road: reaching the anchors on a rock climb near my limit, swimming in cold rivers with good friends, collecting rocks on the wild and scenic beaches of the Olympic coast. The world feels like a big, happy playground built just for me.

Going back to work after an amazing road trip is always an adjustment.

The adjustment really stings when I learn that one of our former mentees has died at the age of 15.

It was the first half hour of work for the 2013 school year. I was making plans for our annual mentoring rafting trip while Dan sifted through a backlog of e-mails.

“Chris Tanner died,” Dan suddenly announced in a voice of disbelief. Together we re-read the email informing school staff of Chris’s viewing at six o’clock. We sat in silence for a moment. Wrapping my brain around death is impossible, but it’s even more confusing when a young person dies. Chris is our second mentee to pass away, and I’m learning the shock comes down like a fist. Shock first, then the sadness.

FBI had seen Chris walking around town shortly before summer break. He looked healthy and content. Now in high school, he’d shot up to 6 foot, 2 inches and slimmed down. He had joined the football team and seemed to be finding his niche in life. His coach reports that he’d recently taken over the leader board in the weight room after bench-pressing 225. I’d never thought of Chris as an athlete in his younger years, but some boys come into their own in high school.

For four years Chris had been part of Grand Area Mentoring in elementary and middle school. He’d never been in much trouble, but his teachers wanted to make sure he didn’t feel lonely. They believed a mentor might make school a friendly place for Chris. And even though Chris graduated from the program, he always gave me a smile and a wave when I’d pass him on our small town’s bike path.

I got in touch with his former mentor, a close personal friend, to give her the news. She was heartbroken. Traveling in Alaska, she had no idea Chris had passed away and wouldn’t be able to attend the viewing or the funeral. Chris had grown up with a caring single mother and grandmother, and as he moved into middle school, we’d switch him to a male mentor. I spoke with Kevin as well, another conversation filled with disbelief and melancholy.

There’s not much comfort to give a mother of a recently deceased son, but I wanted to go to the viewing to offer Chris’s mom and grandma a hug and pass along the condolences of his former mentor.

“When Chris didn’t have a friend in the world, he had his mentor. Thank you.”

“When Chris didn’t have a friend in the world, he had his mentor.”

His mom gripped me tight, and when she pulled away she told me, “When Chris didn’t have a friend in the world, he had his mentor. Thank you.”

His grandma, eyes puffy, conveyed relief that I had been in touch with his first mentor, “I’ve been thinking about her and wondering if she knew. Tell her we’re doing okay, tell her that please.” And as we embraced, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

It was a really heavy first day.

A big-hearted friend of mine recently joked that he wouldn’t want my job because I have to work with people I care about. And there’s some truth to his observation; it can be tough to work with kids like Chris, to see bad things happen to the vulnerable children we serve. Social work isn’t always easy to leave at the office. But on a very sad day, Chris’s mom and grandma reminded me of the beauty of this work.

Chris had a good friend through some of the toughest times in his short life. And that makes this mentoring endeavor so valuable.

There’s a different kind of meaning that comes along with the work we do in Moab. And while my time in this desert town isn’t always the carefree adventure of a climbing road trip, perhaps I need both types of meaning in this crazy life. Play and work, personal endeavors and helping others, happiness and sadness, love and loss.

It’s life.

It’s beautiful.

And it’s not to be taken for granted.

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A Story of Honor

Gear

Yesterday, 22-year-old Zach Taylor, a graduate of Grand County High School and student at the University of Utah, died in a rappelling accident. Zach’s kind father happens to be a volunteer for the mentoring program I oversee. I know nothing about the circumstances of Zach’s death, except what his mother shared in a public Facebook update:

“I had the most amazing day with my son, Zach Taylor on Saturday. It was just the two of us, and our dog Ubu, going on an adventure. I didn’t realize it would be part of a goodbye. He died yesterday while hiking and rappelling with friends, doing what he loved to do most. Anyone who knows me personally knows that I call him, unabashedly, my favorite child. And his siblings handled my favoritism well, because they admitted that he, too, was their favorite sibling. Zach was pure energy. May he continue to be so in this next life as well.”

Many people decry risky pursuits as selfish (such as canyoneering deep in the backcountry). Yet Zach’s mother handles the circumstances with utter understanding. In fact, her online elegy flies in the face of a recent blog post by Steve Casimiro. In this post, Steve wrote:

“‘Hey, Glenn,’ I said to my partner. ‘If anything ever happens to me out here, make sure my mom knows I died doing something I loved.’ He nodded gravely, a solemn promise made.

“Today, with many years under my belt and the loss of too many friends in falls, avalanches, and accidents, I cringe at the memory. It sounds like one of the tritest, most self-absorbed, and most post-adolescently melodramatic comments I could make. What a tool.

“Of course I would have died doing something I loved. That was self-evident. My parents knew I loved climbing, skiing, mountain biking. But as I consider it now, I realize that I didn’t actually intend the comment as an explanation, as solace for a grieving parent to help them better understand their son. No, I meant it as a justification for a selfish act and a mistake made, as if screwing up doing something fun made it okay that I screwed up.”

Meanwhile, Zach’s mother seems to take solace from the fact that her son died doing something he loved, even if that act resulted in disaster, possibly from a mistake. And why shouldn’t she? Naturally, life is preferable, but isn’t it better that her son died in a climbing accident rather than from, say, a random dose of food poisoning? He died in the pursuit of his dreams, in the wild canyons of adventure. Regardless of whether the accident was preventable or not, Zach was doing something he loved, probably riding high.

CanyonEvery adventurer who knowingly (but not recklessly) risks the ultimate cost has earned my respect. So too have hobbyists of mellower pursuits. They have all chosen causes that transcend the mundane requirements of life through bowling and playing music… or mountains and big waves and dirt bikes and BASE jumping and riding horses, because life would otherwise mean too little. I honor their selection of the right tools to make meaning for themselves. I honor them by calling death untimely but not tragedy. Sad? Yes. Are we bereft of good people like Zach? Yes. But I will not dishonor my friend’s big life choice that put her forever under an avalanche in the Himalaya or Michael Reardon’s soloing pursuit that put him under the cold waters of the North Atlantic. Their decisions did not end in senseless deaths. No, they resulted in lives powerfully lived, albeit shorter than most.

I salute also those who recognize in others the primacy of instinct. Apparently Zach always loved to climb. His mother, still perfectly unapologetic about her son’s native spirit, went on to share a Facebook link to this story of his childhood:

“A couple of months into school I was asked to visit with his teacher. It seems that Zach was getting in trouble for climbing. He climbed the fences. He climbed the walls. He climbed onto the roof. He climbed onto the top of the swingset. He climbed onto the top of the slide where you’re not supposed to climb.

“The teacher told me all of this very emphatically with a scowl and furrowed brows. I nodded, listened. Inside I was thinking how incredibly adventurous my son was and was giving him a mental high five. Perhaps reading my thoughts, she decided to scold me like she had been scolding him, ‘Don’t you know how dangerous that could be? He could fall!’

“I said I would talk with him. And I did.

“‘Don’t climb at school.’

“And then I bought him a membership at a local climbing gym.”

I’m glad Zach’s mother hasn’t dishonored her son by labeling his passions selfish. Every pursuit (and every act) is fundamentally selfish, unless it happens to coincidentally benefit others. It’s nobody’s fault that some hobbies are more dangerous than others. I can blame nobody for the fact that beach volleyball doesn’t tickle me. And therefore, I allow others to chart their crazy courses as best they can without my passing judgment on the roots of their desire.

While some may argue about what is or isn’t an acceptable level of risk, I hope the people who love Zach will do his memory the courtesy of recognizing his decisions as central to the tenets of the person he was. I will celebrate the life he lived even though I didn’t know him.

BoulderingAnd if I die rock climbing or mountain biking or on an adventure, I hope my family and friends take comfort from the idea that I died doing something I loved. It will require a big mistake or an act of god to snuff out this life – which, by the way, could also occur on the interstate – because I do want to live. I am careful out there, by my definition of the word. I want to climb and laugh and hug another day. But if some hazard, whether objective or subjective, takes me out, please be consoled by the fact that it happened when I was seeking that which makes life meaningful.

If I die from botulism, though, feel free to call it tragedy.

So yes. I ask you, those whom I love, to take care while in pursuit of your dreams. I want to share in future adventures. I want to hear about the meaning you’ve made using the tools and variables at your disposal. And I hope you will forgive me if I judge your life well lived regardless of how it might end but rather by the light of your inspiration.

Mountain

The Answer to Hate

I wonder how to alleviate intolerance and antagonism such as this. If you haven’t already seen it, take a look at Russesl Brand’s interview of Steve Drain and Timothy Phelps from Westboro Baptist Church.

Remember, I totally acknowledge that Mr. Drain and Mr. Phelps are no more responsible for their beliefs and actions than I am. With so many people in the world, we’re bound to see bigotry and moral certitude expressed by some folks, simply based on probability. These people haven’t invented something new. Human beings have been carrying out inquisitions and witch-hunts since time immemorial. (See Cullen Murhpy’s book, “God’s Jury; the Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World,”)

Admittedly, the threat of a make-believe punishment (Hell) is far sweeter than the real tortures carried out by the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition. In other words, it’s not horribly difficult to withstand the vitriol of an angry pastor when compared to the interrogations of the Inquisition. Instead of burning people at the stake, now they appear as guests on a liberal talk show and spout Bible passages. That’s progress.

Nevertheless, I have to ask: What’s the antidote to their homophobic, absolutist approach, an approach that vilifies human beings for the circumstances of their lives and minds? I’m not looking to vilify Mr. Drain and Mr. Phelps. I simply wonder if there’s a way to make sense of and mitigate their destructive influence.

For a while, I didn’t make the connection.

Then, lying in bed this morning, I realized the antidote to ridiculous religious behavior and thinking is – of course – atheism.

CC:             “[I’m] openly gay. And [I’m] a Christian.”

Timothy:    “You’re a filthy pervert.”

CC:             “I’m an openly gay man, and I’m a Christian. Because God is love and his love is for everybody.”

Steve:        “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind. It is abomination. That’s in the Bible that you say you believe.”

Russell:     “I don’t think it’s one of the most important bits.”

Steve:        “Hey listen. There’s not going to be any creation going on when two men get together. I can tell you that right now.”

Russel:      “What worries me, Steve, to follow the ‘you musn’t lay with men’ bit, you’ve got to ignore the tolerance and love bit. And that’s got to be more important. That’s like a subclause, that’s like small print.”

Steve:        “No it’s not. No it’s not.”

Russel:      “I don’t think they even meant that part.”

Cher:          “You guys have to be civil. We’re going to respect you, so you should respect us, okay?”

Timothy:    “You’re a sodomiser.”

Steve:         “We love you enough to tell you what God’s standard is.”

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Top Films of All Time

Movies rise up in all shapes and sizes and so do critics! Some peanut gallery Frankensteins agree with me and some do not, so one of the things I’ve accepted about humanity is this: we represent a wide range of tastes. Some people want to live in New Jersey. They actually want to! Other folks disdain reading. Though I can’t empathize, I can sympathize, because I don’t want to live in New Jersey and I love reading – opposite sides of these proverbial coins.

Thus I offer this list of top films with a caveat. These are the movies that speak to me, and I am only one in about seven billion. Of course, I’m right, so look on my opinions ye mighty and despair!

(I’ll keep the spoilers to a minimum.)

Top Ten 

1. American Beauty

Since my mother despises this movie and it’s probably tied for number one on my list, this is another example of people’s conflicting views. And honestly, it’s hard to explain why American Beauty resonates with me. Must be something about the existential conversations within the plot – individual vs. the collective, beauty’s subjectivity, compassion and submission as deliverance, despair as destroyer – these huge topics come to life in a surprisingly quirky yet dark film.

2. Good Will Hunting

The year this debuted, 1997, Titanic won the Oscar for best picture. Such a result speaks to the power of money over soul. I like a tragedy as much as the next person (half the movies on this list serve as evidence), but the trite emotion and flimsy drama of Titanic just don’t measure up to the grit and character of Good Will Hunting. In fact, Titanic didn’t even make it onto this list, except as an overblown feature here in my commentary on Good Will Hunting. To get back on track, let me say this: this film deservedly won an Oscar for best original screenplay. If you haven’t seen it, you’re doing yourself injury. If you have viewed it and didn’t like (or love) it, you might be a cyborg.

3. The Bourne TRILOGY

Only the Matt Damon installments count. Only he can bring such depth to a kickass amnesiac. We own this package (Thank you, Eric!), and I can confidently announce these are the best action movies in history because they have both human insight and incredible energy. In our household, the first (The Bourne Identity) and third (The Bourne Ultimatum) marginally edge out the second (The Bourne Supremacy) in a head-to-head. But the whole package – well, these have legs to run and run.

4. The Departed

Another Matt Damon movie, and this time he’s paired with Leonardo DiCaprio. Finally, years after Good Will Hunting and Titanic, we get to see these competitors duke it out as double agents working for opposite sides. Enthralling storyline. Brilliant dialogue. Disturbing visuals. Amazing acting. Come on, what more do you want?

5. Star Wars Trilogy

The grainy originals, not the CG prequels with their glitzy, busy, annoying battle scenes and stilted acting. These movies helped to define my childhood. I don’t know if it’s a good thing that I grew up thinking there really was a Rancor out there in the universe, but I’m sure my powers of concentration benefited from many hours of trying to levitate a rock. Return of the Jedi has always been my favorite, notwithstanding the Ewoks. My wife’s favorite is The Empire Strikes Back.

6. Love Actually

Hey, romantic comedies don’t get any better. Ensemble casts don’t either. Every time I watch it, I’m pleased, especially around Christmas. Aside from one storyline (I’ll let you be judge), I admire how the characters’ stories hit the mark. Endearing individuals weave together in heartbreaking, uplifting, and funny style, making this viewer at least, believe love actually is all around us. Of course, then we go on to the next title on the list, and all hope for a happy ending (and decent second and third acts) goes up in flames…

7. Atonement

Moviemaking doesn’t get any better than the first forty minutes. Though I shrug off the last two thirds of this movie, the first act is enough to float it up (along with the help of my wife’s high opinion) to top ten. Keira Knightly is beautiful, of course, and acts beautifully. James McAvoy shows his depth. Together they soar, but it wouldn’t work without a young Saoirse Ronan, who, in my opinion, is the linchpin of believability for this wonderfully crummy tale.

8. Lord of the Rings Trilogy

It’s a rare movie that outdoes the book. Here are three such cases. It helps that the novels were overwrought and slow-paced, these scriptwriters adept, and the direction brilliant. When someone marries quintessential fantasy storytelling to singular cinematic vision, the audience– aw, hell, the whole world is elevated. (By the way, here’s another movie in the same genre, which outdoes the book and is worth watching: The Princess Bride.)

9. 3:10 to Yuma

A Western that caught me off guard. I like it. I don’t know why. That’s a pathetic review, I know, but you’ll just have to watch the movie and tell me why you agree (or disagree, I suppose). I’ll go ahead and mention another that vied for a spot on the top ten: True Grit. These movies, both Westerns, imbue story with sympathetic leads in a setting that seems altogether foreign yet familiar to me as I live in what was once the wild frontier.

10. The Town

Conflicted loyalties, earning a comeuppance, clinging tentacles of the past, romance – this movie lays out a lot of heart for a film about bank robbers. Maybe as a New Englander, I’m keen on this one because it’s set in Boston and features a scene from Fenway Park. Maybe I just like hearing that Boston accent, and this one rides high on the back of Good Will Hunting and The Departed. Whatever the case, in it Ben Affleck showcases his directing prowess, and Jeremy Renner plays the role he was born for.

Honorable Mentions

A short-list of more favorites, though I will admit that a few are absolute and enjoyable crap:

Blood Diamond

Gone Baby Gone

Silver Linings Playbook

Crazy Stupid Love

Last of the Mohicans

Braveheart

Unforgiven

Gran Torino

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Sixth Sense

The Notebook

Dead Poets Society

The Shawshank Redemption

Pirates of the Caribbean

Avatar

Crash

17 Again

Madagascar 2

The Incredibles

One Idea that Will Change Your Life

If you let go of preconceived notions, if at the very least you view this as a self-contained thought experiment, you’ll come away changed.

Galen Strawson’s Basic Argument is very simple and therefore elegant. The paper offers some important insight about moral responsibility.

What? Moral responsibility? Yawn.

Punishment takes on a new meaning when we consider the Basic Argument. (Source: Christian Graphics)

This is serious. The world’s penal systems rest on the concept of moral responsibility. Most folks judge other people’s behavior standing atop the foundation of moral responsibility. You’ll understand how powerfully this concept impacts your life once we get into it. So without further ado…

The Basic Argument goes like this:

1. You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are.

2. In order to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are — at least in certain crucial mental respects.

3. But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.

4. So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do.

(Incidentally, Mr. Strawson does an excellent job of presenting his own work here at the NY Times)

Fooey! you say. That’s just a way to shirk one’s responsibility, to justify bad choices!

Look. Nobody is ultimately responsible for what they do, yet people make great decisions all the time. This argument isn’t going to change that. In fact, this argument will change very little, except some people’s understanding, those people whose experiences have taught them to value logic. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Let’s take it a step at a time.

You do what you do because of how you are. We probably won’t disagree here. Why else would you do what you do? Because of the way someone else is? Of course not. You might eat chicken curry because you like it. You detest horrible pop music because you always have. You choose to learn BASE jumping because you have the inclination and because caution isn’t hardwired into your genes. Every predisposition and preference and decision you make is a product of who you are.

It would be a hard sell to say: I do what I do not because of the way I am but rather because fairies tickle mushrooms, or because my parents messed me up (both of which would suggest somebody else was responsible for what you do anyway).

I rock climb because that’s an activity I enjoy.

I write because that’s an activity I find stimulating.

I floss my teeth because I’m afraid of gingivitis.

I mentor a kid because it’s rewarding to help somebody.

I gulp down water because my experience and instinct taught me it quenches thirst, and I want to be quenched.

I do all these things because of who I am. Simple as that.

Can you think of any other reason you would do what you do OTHER THAN THE WAY YOU ARE? If so, please tell me.

Now, to be responsible for your actions, you must be responsible for who you are. As we just saw, you do what you do because of who you are. If that’s true, and if you’re going to take responsibility for your predispositions and preferences and decisions, you must be responsible for how you are. In other words, you must have had some role in creating yourself.

Wall-E, like each of us, was created by the forces that shaped his “brain.” He didn’t create himself.

Ah. Here comes the crux of the argument: nothing can be causa sui – nothing can create itself. At first blush, that’s not hard to believe. I mean, a robot can’t create itself. A lamp can’t do so. A panda isn’t going to give birth to itself. And so on, including human beings. You didn’t make yourself.

People begin to really take issue with the argument here, because we have the feeling, some unreasoned yet seemingly irrefutable sense, that we play a role in choosing who we are. However, because nothing can create itself, it becomes obvious that two things claim responsibility for creating the “me” which is ultimately responsible for my choices: 1) my genes, 2) my earliest experiences. In fact, we don’t get to choose either one, so this takes us to the last point in the argument: if you cannot be ultimately responsible for who you are, you cannot be ultimately responsible for the things you do, and therefore, moral responsibility is impossible.

But, you might want to claim: I choose whether to do wrong or right, or you might say: I make the choice between stealing food or paying for it. Yes, you do, and always your choice is based on who you are, and since you can’t create yourself, you’re not ultimately responsible for what you choose. We do, of course, have an intrinsic sense of responsibility for our decisions, at least those of us with a conscience. Yet this is something also inherited from our genetic makeup and life experiences and therefore something for which we’re not responsible.

The trajectory of our life can be selected, but the decisions always will be based on previous life experiences and innate proclivities that we didn’t independently select, so this proximal sense of responsibility is only illusion. It’s an illusion so powerful that we grant culpability to every human being that might treat us well or ill. Though we have good reason to do so in many cases (such as promoting beneficial behavior and protecting ourselves against dangerous circumstances), that doesn’t mean we’re correct in assigning praise or blame.

Take any action somebody performs. Ask whether the decision was a product of who she is. Inevitably, any behavior consciously performed (any behavior done intentionally, because what else would we want to hold her accountable for?) will stem from who she is. Since she can’t ultimately be responsible in any way for who she is, she can’t be ultimately responsible for what she’s done.

Charles Whitman: Suffered a brain tumor that turned him into a murderer.

Here’s an apt example that serves to show how our choices – those decisions that seem to be made with independence and freedom – are simply products of wiring. An intelligent man began feeling ill. He noticed dramatic changes in his own emotional stability, his thinking. Hours after killing his wife and mother, he climbed into a bell tower and shot pedestrians down with a case of guns before being gunned down by the police. In his suicide note, he wrote that he couldn’t provide a logical explanation for his behavior and asked for an autopsy. The medical examiner found a tumor in his brain that impinged on the amygdala, a region of the brain “involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression.” It’s a simple case of a man carrying out decisions that were a product of an altered state of consciousness, one caused by a bundle of anomalous cells. (Read the full Atlantic article here.)

The above is an extreme example, but it’s nevertheless appropriate because we are each and every one of us like this man – products of circumstances beyond our control. We inherited these neural structures. We were exposed to certain stimuli that shaped our personalities. Brain tumors strike at random all the time, something for which nobody is culpable. That is who we are.

So I can do whatever I want? I can steal or kill or maim without being responsible for it?

The answer hinges on the idea of the self, the concept ME. You – your experiences and genetic inheritance – are responsible, though you’d like to think there is a self separate from the mechanics of the brain. But remember, that brain in no way created itself, so it is the experiences and genetic inheritance that are ultimately responsible for the actions you’d call your own. In this society and in any society that I’d want to call home, we won’t allow a bundle of experiences and genetics to commit theft or murder or assault without recourse. Yet at the same time, to place blame verges on cruel or even downright barbarous when the criminal is an instrument of circumstances beyond his control.

Tune in to a future post about real-world consequences of the Basic Argument. And in the meantime, take a shot at putting a hole in the Basic Argument. I dare you.